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Emi on women-only spaces and politics of safety in Bitch magazine

Date: June 14, 2007

The current issue of Bitch magazine has an interview with poet & activist Julia Serano about her new book, “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” (definitely recommended). Along with it there’s a side column in which Lisa Jervis compiles several people’s opinions about the women-only space, in which I’m quoted (see page 65). I love how they listed my occupation as “buttenmeister” as I’ve requested, but for space reason they had to edit down my comments two (long) paragraphs. Below, I present the complete response to Lisa’s questions, unmodified.


What’s your personal experience with women-only space? (Have you spent a lot of time in women-only spaces, organized such spaces, etc.? If so, what has drawn you to them and what do you see as the benefits and drawbacks?)

I haven’t spent that much time, but I have participated in events, meetings, and a couple of retreats that was specifically for women. There was a time in my life that seemed like a great place to be, not necessarily because it was women-only, but it was a space to be with the kind of women who needed and appreciated such space (in other words, the presence of Condy Rice or Laura Bush or probably even Hilary Clinton would ruin it for me). It was not about the fact that they were women, but are the kind of women with whom I needed to connect with at the time, that was important to me. But of course that’s getting into a dangerous territory, because there is nothing that says that Condy can’t come to such a space.

What’s your preferred definition of women-only space (e.g., woman-identified folks only, cisgender women only – only those who were born and socialized as female, anyone who currently or has ever identified as a woman)?

My preference is to not have a definition as a matter of principle: for most people, “women-only” would be sufficient to determine whether or not they should be part of it; and for those people where things are more complicated, no single set of criteria would do justice.

What part, if any, do you think women-only space plays or should play within feminism?

It’s a playground to see what is possible among women: I would especially like to see the space utilized to discuss racism, classism and other issues that exist among women and among feminists, because we often censor ourselves on these topics in the larger society out of fear that feminism would be perceived divided and weak.

Would you like to see a change in the admissions policies of high-profile women-only space such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival? What kind of change?

Oh, please keep the current policy so that we can continue to use it as an educational tool to address transphobia in women’s and feminist groups! ;-)

Seriously, as I wrote above, there shouldn’t be any policy beyond “women-only.” I’m sure that organizers of Michfest now realize that creating the policy was a mistake, because it has brought far more attention to the trans existence at the festival than there would have been if they simply quietly ignored/tolerated the extremely small transsexual women contingent.

A common thread in discussions of women-only space is that it is safe, or safe in comparison to mixed-gender space. What does the term “safe space” mean to you?

“Safe space” is often a place in which others’ safety is sacrificed to make it safe for you. The idea that safety is about removing people or things that threaten them is criminally immoral when our government invades and occupies other countries, detains residents of these countries and others associated with it (including U.S. residents) without due process, strips them naked and tortures them, in order to protect, supposedly, “our” “safety.”

Safety should not be about the absence of the perceived threat, the “other,” but about building structures that ensure fairness, accountability, and justice. If a women-only space is to be safe, it shouldn’t be assumed to be safe simply because it excludes men (and possibly trans people), but because we work toward building such structures.

Do you see women-only space as safe? Why or why not?

Usually not. In fact, it’s sometimes more dangerous for many women, including of course trans women.

Do you think there’s such a thing as safe space? If so, what are the qualities that make a space safe? If not, why not?

See above.

What effects, if any, have the rules/guidelines surrounding women-only space policies had on you and/or your community?

It’s hurt a lot of people on both sides, but especially trans people (I refuse to equate the pain of being discriminated against and the pain of being accused of discriminating others, although they are both painful.)

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